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The Great American Eclipse
August 20-21, 2017Dear Friends, Family, and Diary,
Written August 19+
This is the story of our trip to Oregon and the Great American Eclipse (GAE), told in plenty of detail for our own memories. (Click here if you JUST want the eclipse pictures. I understand.)
Our first challenge was packing. We have become accustomed to car travel and having a big Jeep to hold whatever we might think we want, but this trip called for small plane and car-loaded-with-camping-things travel. Complicating matters was the reality that I wanted most of my camera gear, so I convinced myself that I could do with less clothing, especially fewer shoes. Why is it that shoes take up so much space? At least the forecast was for warm, dry days, so we could leave behind normal Pacific Northwest rain gear in favor of bright summer wear, like my new-favorite old-car shirt.
Our flight started in Fresno-Yosemite International Airport, code-named FAT, to the locals' chagrin, and continue along the Sierras and Cascades. Our first Alaska Airlines plane was a very comfortable Brazilian-made twin-engine jet. There was leg room and plenty of space for our carry-on bags, somehow more of both than we normally find nowadays. I had lost sleep worrying about carry-on space, and that turned out to be completely unnecessary, like much of my pre-trip worrying.
Just after take-off, we passed over Fresno State University. Marianne's mom's house would have been just below us. Twenty minutes later, we could see signs of the fire in Yosemite National Park that had prompted the evacuation of the village of Wawona and the old Wawona Hotel. The century-old resort is one of our favorites getaway spots, so we hope the fire fighters are successful.
The flight was uneventful, although I did think this jet passed us closer than I would have preferred. Just me worrying again. Farther north, we saw extensive smoke from the "Milli Fire", a blaze that had already pushed some folks out of their Sisters, Oregon, homes. A risk of living in great forests.
Our Portland connection was a comfortable two-hours, so we had time to look around and have deli sandwich lunches. Then we were off on our half-hour hop to Redmond. This time it was a on a four-engine turbo-prop, European I think. Although we had to gate-check the big carry-ons, seating leg-room was good again. Thanks, Alaska Airlines!
The flight started with views over Portland, before we turned east to cross the Cascades. We passed Mount Jefferson, a craggy peak that would be a landmark for much of our stay. Smoke clouds filled the valleys, not encouraging for eclipse viewing.
At Redmond Airport, we gathered all our bags and headed out to the curb, where Connie met us with her almost-full Volvo. We managed to empty the car enough to reload us, our bags, and all the camping gear, but it was a close call! Off to our campground in Culver!
Our 19-mile drive north to Culver was completely uneventful, thank goodness. This had been one of the worries, since a million people were descending on the state, at least 200,000 of them around us in the dry eastern counties. It would take far fewer than thousands to fill all the local two-lane roads.
The once-in-a-lifetime eclipse had spawned an entire industry of folks renting space in the open plains of eastern Oregon. Online research indicted that these small businesses varied from simple farm yards to elaborate "eclipse festivals" with as many as 40,000 participants. We looked for something in between. We ended up with a $200-a-night RV parking spot in Culver from an Oregon State University booster organization at their Orange and Black Eclipse Festival. It turned out to be a great choice.
We had opted for an "RV space" instead of a simple camping plot in the grass field because we wanted to keep our car as part of our camp facilities. I just thought we would need too many car-to-camp trips, not because we had tons of camp gear, but because we were novices and might not really know what we needed at our tents. Unfortunately, this meant that, in principle, we would be setting up our tents on a gravel parking lot. Ouch.
However, by luck, or by the good graces of the Orange and Black folks, our gravel patch backed up on a nice little grassy area, perfect for pitching the tents Connie had borrowed from neighbors. In no time at all, we had set up our pair of tents and settled into our little corner of what looked like a (prosperous) refugee village, complete with porta potties just twenty feet from us. This was a better deal than one might imagine.
The Orange and Black Festival advertised itself as "family friendly", and it was. Throughout our stay, the air was filled with the sounds of kids happy to be running free throughout the village and up to the big white tent of the events area. There, they could cook "s'mores" in solar ovens or build solar viewers or just learn about the next day's solar eclipse. We passed on face painting and s'mores, but throughly enjoyed being around families having so much fun. (This festival was also alcohol-free, something that probably contributed to the peaceful nature of the whole experience.)
The keynote speaker for the program was retired astronaut James Wetherbee. In his afternoon presentation, he taught eclipse science to the audience, young and old alike. He managed to keep us all engaged in such details as optical angles (both the sun and the moon's angle is just slightly larger than that of the sun, thus allowing an eclipse), and distances between earth, the moon, and the sun. He managed to incorporate and engage kids from the audience it what will be lifetime highlights for them. And the rest of us learned too!
After science, festivities continued with a Latin dance band, !Chiringa, with vocals by Puerto-Rican and Iranian lead singer Shireen Amini. The spirit of the music added even more to the upbeat vibe of the Orange and Black.
However, by now we were getting hungry and needed to walk in the fading light over to our campsite. The assigned spot my have just been a gravel parking lot, but the evening vista was unbeatable. We dug into the potato salad and sandwich fixings Connie had packed as if we were dining in a fine restaurant. And the day wasn't even over!
The highlight activity for the day turned out to be Jim Wetherbee showing slides from his long flying career. He talked about a life completely devoted to flying, flying the most challenging crafts in the world. For example, his Navy career included 345 carrier landings and the pictures he narrated of day and night landings gave some inkling of the difficulty of hitting the right spot at the right time - every time. Wetherbee talked about the transition from jet pilot to space shuttle pilot, where he flew six space missions, a record five as pilot-commander.
After the show, all the festival participants were invited to a night sky constellation tour, but by now our trio was pretty beat, so we headed back to camp. Along the way, we looked up at stars peaking through evening smoke and haze. In the far distance, off to the west, we could see the red of forest fires. We hoped the next day things would be clear.
I will admit that, as tired as I was, sleep was pretty limited. It was a a combination of camp ground noise (not too bad, actually) and worry about the challenge of getting any sort of useful eclipse picture. (Marianne says she got even less sleep than I did, but blamed the distraction of a wonderful night sky, visible through our tent skylight. And general excitement, I bet.)
On THE BIG DAY, I was up very early, probably about five am. Outside the tent, not much was happening, but I had to work on my worrying. That's what it seemed I was doing lately, but this time I could get to work and feel better prepared about the things I worried about.
Mount Jefferson helped the mood, standing unchanged in the west, basked in the pink of sunrise. As I went through the car and retrieved all my gear, and walked it up to the field where all the eclipse events were based, I thoroughly enjoyed the feel of the place. There are a half-dozen volcanic hills and peaks visible from the field and the early morning light bathed everything in a primeval glow. Maybe all this eclipse folklore has a basis.
My camera setup was as complex as I have ever tried. At one end of shooting complexity, was my trusty SONY RX100, a "point and shoot" that I generally leave on full automatic and just click the pictures that help build the stories in these diaries. No preparation, just trying to remember to take enough shots so that I can compose a story when it comes time.
Next, I was experimenting with time-lapse photos from my iPhone. In theory, it would be simple enough, just tape a sun filter over the lens, mount the iPhone to something sturdy, click "time-lapse", and wait for everything to happen. Simple it was, but also unsuccessful. Better luck next time.
Most complex, of course, is my Canon D7-II, with the Tamron 150-600mm telephoto. The very long zoom requires a solid base, in this case a Really Right Stuff tripod with my camera bag hanging down to add stability. I had two sun filters available, a darkened glass one and a much cheaper foil. The plan was to use the glass filter for most of the sun shots, but the cap at the very end, since it is easily removed and I have to do that and reset the camera in the dark! It probably took me an hour-and-a-half to set up and review how I was going to shoot each part of the eclipse. I was thankful for the peace and quiet of the early morning.
Eventually, the rest of the camp started waking up. Volunteers showed up for work and kids showed up for even more face painting. Kids and a few parents joined in the Fun Run.
And our little crew was as prepared as any. Let the moon approach!
This is what my preparations were all about, at least photographically. My first shot was the early morning sun peeking through trees, colored by smoke from forest fires. Some folks were worried about smoke blocking the sun, but I commented that the sun was pretty strong and, besides, a little color is nice.
As the sun got higher in the sky, the color gradually dropped away and the details on the sun's surface became clearer. A good omen.
At about 9:00 am, we all started watching for the moon shadow to show up, almost imperceptibly at first, but more and more over the next hour and twenty minutes.
Then, the two minutes of darkness disappeared as abruptly as it had arrived. We all wanted the moment to linger, but the moon had a journey to make. We had memories. (And pictures, although at the time I really did not know if I had captured anything at all!!)
During much of the eclipse, there was time for non-camera activity too. Marianne added sketches to her journal, carefully repeating a technique that has stood for millenia. I also tried out my little paper-plate pin-hole camera, another ancient technique. If you look close, you can see it even works! Of course, the official event organizers had a much better pinhole camera, but it is the fun that matters after all.
As the sun started coming back, the crowds drifted away, hoping to beat the traffic and not even waiting to see if the sun came back completely. Full faith in science I guess. We hung around, mostly talking about what we had seen, but also packing up the Volvo. I was kind of surprised we managed to stuff everything back in, and before noon, we headed south.
In normal times, Culver is less than an hour from Connie's house in Bend. This was not normal times. Nevertheless, we had expected the worst and, in the end, we were satisfied with the simple, slow, three-hour drive. Somehow, the eclipse experience itself had made traffic a more manageable process. At least the sun had returned.
Throughout the drive, we talked about what we had seen. We all agreed it had been worth the effort. We also agreed on how pleasant our little village-for-a-day had been, filled with mostly young families creating vivid memories that will last for decades.
Even back home, sitting on the deck sipping white wine, we continued to review our day's experience. I don't think it will ever get old. If you did not see this one, remember there is a replay in 2024, just around the corner.
Now we will continue our week in Oregon, as simple as it may seem. Another story?
John and Marianne
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